Riding the Goddamn Elephant

2024-05-20 23:28:319
A. S. Hamrah , March 9, 2023

Riding the Goddamn Elephant

Oscar movies, 2023 © Ted Jouflas
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EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE

The film’s simple message about the importance of family drew criticism for being predictable and a letdown after the elastic mayhem that led to it. But as much as I dislike rote wrap-ups shaded in warm Spielbergian glow, I would rather see the parent-child-hug ending with a working-class Asian family who owns a laundromat and has tax problems than in the usual mid-America, middle-class unit. The thing I didn’t understand is how you lose money running a laundromat, especially if you own the building.

Riding the Goddamn Elephant

What makes Everything Everywhere All at Oncework is the cast. Michelle Yeoh momentarily brought to earth, the return of Ke Huy Quan after lo these many years, the welcome antics of such disparate talents as Stephanie Hsu, James Hong, Tallie Medel, and Jenny Slate, even the pungency of nepo-granny Jamie Lee Curtis as an embittered IRS flunky—these add up to something new when set against the backdrop of franchise sequels, IP reboots, and the current mirthlessness of American filmmaking.  

The humor, though, is silly and second-rate. The googly eyes, the talking raccoon, the pet rocks at sunset, the parody of 2001: A Space Odyssey—all those work against the cast instead of with it. There should be a moratorium on 2001 parodies at this point, and writer-directors like Kwan and Scheinert should know that. In a film that is, in the end, really about adult regret, these juvenile ideas from sketch comedy and music videos one after another reveal themselves as distractions. If the multiverse needs that much flailing and tinkering to come out the same as it always does, then I don’t believe in it and don’t need it. The Ramones understood this universal truth better than the Daniels: “Second verse same as the first.”

 

AFTERSUN

In contrast, Charlotte Wells’s self-assured debut takes pains to be specific to its time and place. It is the late 1990s at a modest resort on the Turkish Riviera, where divorced Scottish father Calum (Paul Mescal) takes his eleven-year-old daughter Sophie (Frankie Corio) on vacation. Like Everything Everywhere All at Once, Aftersunis a story of adult regret, but unlike the Daniels’s movie, it is also a study in how patient, focused accumulation of detail can have devastating effect. This film has a true sense of lost possibility, the kind that can’t be recovered in another universe but that can be recalled and recreated in a movie. Here, that feeling seeps outside the film’s borders instead of exploding them.

Aftersundiscovers non-cliché beauty in summer beach scenes. Against these, Calum struggles with a broken wrist to light his cigarettes and read paperbacks while Sophie videos him and kids him. A sleepy, delicate feeling pervades their interactions. When Calum mentions he can’t picture himself at forty, his melancholy begins to take over the film, and Sophie seems stranded. When her father hangs her out to dry by making her karaoke “Losing My Religion” alone—a quintessential 1990s moment of awkwardness—we come to see how troubled and preoccupied he is.

I’m not sure I needed to meet the adult Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall), nor see Calum disappearing into the murk like a Scottish prole in Under the Skin. These scenes at the end gave Wells’s otherwise remarkable film a confusing, student-film feel, just as closing with a David Bowie song and a dance scene placed this beautiful film too much in the current of contemporary arthouse production (though Wells used “Under Pressure” quite well). That the movies can stand an infinite amount of Bowie and that all stories end in a dance are familiar cinematic notions a little out of place in this unembellished film defined by Wells’s supernatural ability with her two actors. Sophie and Calum become guileless and real, as real as the Polaroid we see developing that someday has to fade.

 

THE WHALE

When heavyset Dom DeLuise was in Fatso in 1980, the only thing stopping him from finding love was that he ate too many “scraps.” It says so right on the Fatsomovie poster: “DO NOT EAT apple pie, baked beans, bologna” and so on alphabetically through “scraps,” “spaghetti,” and part of the word “sundaes.” Now, after forty-two years of American hell, our movie fat man is Brendan Fraser in The Whale, six hundred pounds of prosthetics and CGI masturbating to gay porn on a greasy couch, pouring ranch dressing on pizzas, guzzling warm Pepsi out of two-liter bottles in bed at night, and never washing his hands after any of it.

Plus, he has conflicts over nineteenth-century American literature and loses his job as an English teacher. Why? Because of honesty. “Honest things” matter, he says. “Just write me something fucking honest!” he messages his students when he’s not screaming at his estranged teenage daughter (Sadie Sink) to do the same. In one of his own fits of honesty, he describes the putrefaction of his blubber in detail, listing “the patches of mold between the flaps and the infected ulcers on my ass and the sack of fat on my back that turned brown last year.”

Yes, sacks of fat, for he is the Whale, puking on his shirt, sobbing alone in his apartment in the green-brown murk of contemporary cinematography. And the whale is also Moby-Dick, and the whale is Herman Melville, too, who was using the metaphor of the whale to hide his own whaleness. Are we all the whale? I don’t think so. Yet Darren Aronofsky’s film of this joyless play was a hit, so I guess it touched something in the moviegoing public. It had to use a bodega claw to do it because it couldn’t get off the couch, but it touched them.

 

LIVING

Skinny and impeccable, Bill Nighy in Livingis the opposite of Brendan Fraser in The Whale, but he too is lonely and dying. This unnecessary remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952), scripted by the British-Japanese novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, retells the story of a quiet bureaucrat who learns he only has a few months to live. It takes place in the same early 1950s of the original film but is set in London and, like its protagonist, has little reason for existing. It seems structured solely to give Nighy a lead role he can get an award for. Nighy, now seventy-three, always dashing, has been poorly served by movies, though he’s done good work in several dozen since 1979, most of them disposable crowd-pleasers. Listing them would be more depressing than Living.  

Britain and Japan have many things in common as class-bound, rule-bound island nations, so you would think this transposition would work. For a while it does. Then, when Nighy must go on a boozy and stripper-filled journey to the end of the night that will secretly turn him into someone who wants to do one good thing before he dies, Livingbecomes wan and unbelievable. Lacking the careless exhilaration of the same scenes in the Kurosawa film, Nighy performs his role as differently from Takashi Shimura’s approach as possible, buttoned up and cadaverous, already dead.

Ten minutes before the movie ends, we see the completed playground the bureaucrat has been trying to get built in a slum. It looks ominous, with Nighy on a swing darkly singing a Scottish song to himself as a teary-eyed cop looks on, as if the scene were taking place at a gallows. And in a way it is, the film prods the audience to say to itself. Ultra-maudlin, grim, and ugly, the effect is to subvert the mature humanism of Kurosawa’s sublime ending by making this into the exact kind of phony movie from which Nighy was trying to escape.

 

TO LESLIE

Equally British in its lust for American award season acknowledgment, To Lesliegives the English actress Andrea Riseborough an opportunity to mash her foot to the gas as an alcoholic hillbilly trying to get her life together after squandering a lottery jackpot. People keep saying of Leslie things like “I won’t lie, she doesn’t look good,” and then we see her in longshot on a West Texas street looking glamorous, like a fashion editor or a publicist clomping down Madison Avenue. That forces Riseborough to imitate an ape in order to convey American dissolution, something her stunning profile works against at every moment in this film.

Michael Morris, a British TV director, works hard to counter that by making To Leslielook like a 1970s movie or The Florida Projectbut even more busted, or maybe something by Gus Van Sant. He wants that grainy feel of American realism in wide open spaces but also a happy ending where Leslie runs a little diner in Nowheresville that serves only one dish, “pasta fazool.” Is that a joke? If it is, I don’t get it. And I think pasta fazool was on the Fatso list of banned foods.

 

CAUSEWAY

So much puking in 2022 big-screen quality drama. Riseborough vomits when she’s cleaning motel rooms and trying to lay off the sauce, and in Causewayan equally de-glamorized Jennifer Lawrence, as a shell-shocked veteran of the war in Afghanistan, throws up in a wastebasket while living in transitional homecare in Nebraska. Back in her real home in New Orleans, she gets a job cleaning pools, showing us what successful movie actresses think they need to do to win Oscars in 2023: portray the immiserated working class puking and cleaning.

The first reel of Causewayis all Lawrence acting comatose in the snow. Back home, in warmer weather, she and the film start to come alive. Lynsey (Lawrence) meets a kindly auto mechanic, James (Brian Tyree Henry), who helps her with her car. He has a prosthetic leg and has experienced terrible trauma of his own, we gradually learn, and the two maybe start to fall in love a little, though Lynsey is gay. Henry plays James as entirely lovable, and the 1978 pistachio green Mercedes he drives probably helps.

Lila Neugebauer directs the film as if were written by Kenneth Lonergan, which is to say she does an excellent job keeping everything low-key and natural. Causeway, however, is defeated by a clunky screenplay. The late introduction of Lynsey’s deaf brother (Russell Harvard) in prison is there to explain so much about so little. The film gets better and better as it goes along, it’s true, but then it just stops. The quick ending is an arty decision that reads as more of an evasion.

 

ELVIS

If this is Baz Luhrmann’s best film, it’s because Elvis Presley forced him to become a better director. To tell Elvis’s story it is necessary to show the full figure in the frame, head to toe, since Elvis’s leg and hip moves on early television made him a star. That precluded Moulin Rouge-style seizure-inducing cuts. And Austin Butler’s Tarantino-fied performance as the King demanded a full view. Butler here is a co-auteur in a way usually closed to biopics in which the lead actors are more famous than Butler is, and so we never lose them in their roles as other famous people. 

Apart from that, Elvisbegins in didacticism, a popular mode these days, explaining the socioeconomic background of Elvis’s life and the history of Black rhythm and blues in the South. This becomes like a series of PowerPoint slides featuring faces of actors posing for roles in Guy Maddin or John Waters films. Then Tom Hanks comes on in a fat suit (another newly popular device) and bloviates on his grating “snow job” theory of entertainment marketing, which he brings up again and again.

This is a non-normative use of the phrase snow job, which usually just describes a deception that conceals actual motives by flattery. Colonel Parker was Dutch, and Luhrmann is Australian, so who knows? It’s not like anyone is going to consult Peter Guralnick to find out if that is really how Colonel Parker talked.

The film ends in tragedy, as it must, but it is a feel-good movie nonetheless, one that induces the summer fun Elvis movie musicals strained for. By definition it must ignore how, by the time he died in the summer of 1977, Elvis was already a moribund figure who was being used by punk for conceptual irony and rock ‘n’ roll autocritique. That fact of cultural history never comes up in these kinds of celebratory equations because it messes with the “Elvis is Everywhere” narrative that unites all races and leads to dancing in the streets, a mode Luhrmann’s film, against the odds, actually achieves.

 

BLONDE

Another Australian director, Andrew Dominik, took on another 1950s American icon, Marilyn Monroe, in Blonde, miscasting Ana de Armas as a Marilyn ripped from the pages of a Joyce Carol Oates novel. The film is like Babylonin the way it demeans and befouls everything it touches, but Dominik is meaner and more lowdown than anything Damien Chazelle has ever encountered, including Tobey Maguire.

Dominik’s Hollywood, unlike Chazelle’s, contains the pulsating viscera of surgery footage and has no love for the movies at all. That’s because Dominik is dead certain he is a better filmmaker than anyone Marilyn Monroe ever worked with. Blondeis a brain-damaged movie but, unlike Chazelle’s, it doesn’t induce laughter or pity so much as miscarriage. If this film had been directed by Andrea Dworkin it would still have been easier on men and on humanity. 

Specific dissections of “the blonde” are not new in the cinema. As out-there a director as Larry Buchanan made one (or was it two?) Monroe biopics, and there was an Australian actress in the 1970s named Linda Kerridge who specialized in Marilyn imitations and seems to have lived as if she were Marilyn herself. I saw her playing Richard Lewis’s neighbor in an obscure movie called Diary of a Young Comic(1979) that I wouldn’t mind seeing again.

From Warhol to Mailer to Madonna, Marilyn’s body, her physical existence, and her corpse have been the subjects of the creepy, insistent fascination of weirdos. Dominik, with a Netflix budget, has outdone them all, without thinking he’s one of them. He treats Marilyn by turns like she’s Abel Gance’s Napoleonand the Barbie whose head Dawn Wiener tries to saw off with a cleaver in Welcome to the Dollhouse.

In Blonde, Marilyn must suffer every kind of sexual predation and/or betrayal, from every man she meets. Dominik reduces each of them to a lowest common denominator of American 1950s manhood, making most of them look like Richard Nixon, including Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale), Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody), and Caspar Phillipson, brought back from Jackie (2017) to play JFK again. The film ends in a paroxysm of grubbiness, after many scenes of Marilyn puking and bleeding, with men waving at her, following her, their mouths distorted in vulgarity.

By then it is impossible to tell if the confused Dominik is attacking masculinity, Hollywood, and America, or if the film is a howl of revulsion at the existence of women. Paradoxically it is over the subway grate of his inevitable remake of the white skirt scene from The Seven Year Itchthat it becomes clear what’s going on: he’s blowing smoke up our panties.

 

FIRE OF LOVE

Katia and Maurice Krafft put together chic work outfits in their tireless quest to film erupting volcanoes. It is impossible to determine if these colorful ensembles are testaments to the radical seriousness of the Kraffts’ life project or if it was just because they were French. Either way, we will never be able to ask them: this pair of married volcanologists died as they lived. Their commitment was so total that they met their end in Japan, obviously the most stylish place for French volcanologists to die. They perished in the 1991 explosion of Mount Unzen, disappearing in a cloud of smoke, ash, gas, and flying rocks. 

Sara Dosa’s mind-blowing documentary, Fire of Love, collects much of what there is to know about Maurice and Katia Krafft. Student radicals in the 1960s, they met at a Cinémathèque Française screening of a Haroun Tazieff volcano documentary, married, and honeymooned on the island of Stromboli so they could observe the ever-erupting volcano there, made famous by the 1950 Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman film, a product of their passion just as the Kraffts’ filmmaking emerged from theirs.

Such was their dedication to their work that they began to camp on the edges of volcanoes, often sleeping in shifts so they could protect each other from the lava flows and rock blasts that come with the geologic territory of these formations from the Earth’s crust. Romance to them was staring together into the magma, he an absent-minded Geoffrey Rush forever about to stick his foot in hot lava by accident, she a nerdy Lina Wertmüller searching for the best angle to film it.

It’s hard to believe Devo had never seen them and that the look of Wes Anderson’s Life Aquaticcrew wasn’t based on their red-beanie, light-blue-jumpsuit look. Even in head-to-toe silver fire suits and aluminum head-covering helmets with dark amber visors, the Kraffts brought savoir faireto that most philosophical and visually impressive of science experiments, the leap into the volcano against a backdrop of molten orange.

© Ted Jouflas

BARDO

For some reason Alejandro González Iñárritu, after having directed six feature films in his career, decided it was time for him to make his . When Fellini did it in 1963, after having made seven features and one short, he did not lie by making his lead character a documentary filmmaker. The character Mastroianni played was based on Fellini (but handsomer), so he was a director like Fellini was.  

In Bardo, Silverio (Daniel Giménez Cacho) is a filmmaker-journalist who has roused the ire of the authorities from the D.F. to D.C. He lives with his family in LA as a kind of exiled Michael Moore (but more distinguished). On the verge of a stroke he does not see coming, he returns to Mexico to celebrate winning an award in the United States, thereby encountering the ghosts of his past and his home country’s history.

Frailer and older than Iñárritu, Silverio is a deglamorized version of the director of Babel and Birdman, but also one who is much more politically engaged. Silverio has pissed people off, but they are angry at him because he’s successful and can afford to live abroad, which he does because, as a rich person, members of his family are potential kidnap targets.

As in Birdman, Iñárittu’s real enemies are the critics. Luis (Francisco Rubio), an old friend who’s now a sellout TV host, tells Silverio that his films “are oneiric to cover up for your mediocre writing.” In response, Iñárittu turns off Luis’s voice on the soundtrack so we see his mouth moving but no sounds come out. Silverio counters Luis by describing him as “rubbing elbows with the president, pushing faddish ideologies and idiocies.” Is Iñárittu aware that this is also a description of the company that released Bardo(Netflix)? Later we learn that filmmakers are small men now, because “ideas ate the deities!”

Iñárittu shoots such self-justifications in elaborate crane shots through wide-angle lenses, exaggerating differences in scale. The film is much too big for the small screens of most Netflix users, making it hard to pick out the wealth of detail Iñárittu includes in his traveling shots and carefully composed frames. Throughout Bardohe appears to be congratulating himself for being experimental and for not presenting “a pasteurized reality.” This approach, and this film, could be called Wide Angle Mexican. But it’s only an experimental film if you are rich, and the reality he criticizes is the reality of other rich people not as self-consciously artistic as he is.

 

BABYLON

This end-of-cinema epic starts by dramatizing the old joke about the man who cleans up elephant shit at least being in show biz, a literalization of La La Land’s contention that the audience likes crap, not jazz. Then Babylon’s musical score gives us so much fake jazz it’s like the movie was made by the Squirrel Nut Zippers. The idea that we need Damien Chazelle to tell us that movies “meant something” and are not a “low art” is absurd, a sure sign of a disconnection from the reality of the lives of film fans across the world. Maybe Chazelle never meets any. Why would he? Wherewould he?

As a murky Madmagazine fold-out comedy, Chazelle’s movie achieves a stupid grandeur in evoking a silent era that is half Hollywood Babylon, half Everyone Poops. It does this by directly imitating the work of filmmakers from the generation immediately before Chazelle’s, lifting ideas and scenes from Quentin Tarantino, Guillermo del Toro, Baz Luhrmann, even movies as recent as Licorice Pizza.

But it pretends it’s not doing this, claiming instead that Singin’ in the Rainis its touchstone, going so far as to reproduce the predecessor “Singin’ in the Rain” musical number from The Hollywood Revue of 1929, as if that is some kind of deep research. Babylon’s sound-recording scene replicates Singin’ in the Rain’s as something dire and unfunny and way too long. It’s one of the movie’s two lowest points, the other being Jean Smart’s “Time! Marches On!” speech to Brad Pitt, a mean-spirited lecture because of course on top of everything else, Babylonis didactic.  

Its real cohort is movies like Zerovilleand Under the Silver Lake, disgruntled non-starters from 2019. Like Babylon, they are about the impossibility of achievement in Hollywood filmmaking, made by callow writer-directors who have tasted success and are afraid the supply is running out.

 

THE FABELMANS

The defecating elephant from Babylonmakes an appearance in Steven Spielberg’s movie letter to his boyhood self, The Fabelmans. His Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch) tells young Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) about his time working in the movies “the year of The Jazz Singer, that’s when talkies started,” the exact pivot point of the Chazelle film. Because Boris knows Sammy is like him, “meshuggah for art,” he understands that Sammy will be happy to “muck out the pachyderms” and that Sammy won’t mind shoveling “until they say, ‘Okay, Sammy, now ride the goddamn elephant.’”

Like Babylon, The Fabelmansis a gross film of boogers, urine, puke, and bird shit to the face. I thought the last scene of Babylon was going to be a pigeon shitting on Manny’s (Diego Calves’s) head at the Paramount Gate. It wasn’t, but in high school Sammy’s “Ditch Day” movie, a jock gets it from a seagull. The way Sammy both sucks up to the superman jocks and subverts them reminded me of Schindler’s List(1993), in which Spielberg makes Liam Neeson’s and Ralph Fiennes’s Nazis into attractive characters who he flatters in order to condemn.

Similarly, Sammy making his wayward mother watch his early movie efforts in his closet brings back E.T. and his hiding place behind the plushies. Michelle Williams’s performance as mom does have an alien quality. She has a Dutch Boy Paint haircut and a marionette affect that makes her seem like June Allyson playing Howdy Doody. Before she becomes estranged from her family (“phone home!”) she buys an evil, E.T.-looking monkey she names after her lover, Bennie (Seth Rogen), which she inflicts on her family because she needs a laugh. Unlike the killer chimp in Nope, it doesn’t rip anyone’s face off, but it looks like it could have.    

In the end, Sammy is anointed as the future of cinema by John Ford, played by David Lynch as shouting FBI Deputy Director Gordon Cole gone to seed. It was a good idea that Lynch makes no attempt to speak in Ford’s register or Maine accent. Like Spielberg, Ford owned a yacht, the Araner, which became a financial drain on him. Near the end of his life, he sold it because he couldn’t afford it anymore. It wasn’t a superyacht like Spielberg’s, which he sold recently for $150 million not because he couldn’t afford it but to upgrade to one twice as long that allegedly costs three times as much. These computer guys, Bennie explains to Sammy in The Fabelmans, “they’re gonna change the whole goddamn world.” That’s something young Steven absorbed more deeply than Ford’s instructions about where to put the horizon.  

 

ALL THE BEAUTY AND THE BLOODSHED

The family of a great Jewish-American artist is brought to life in Laura Poitras’s latest documentary, her best film because its co-auteur is its subject, the photographer Nan Goldin. We meet her in 2018 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art protesting the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma for engineering the opioid crisis, and watch as her quixotic pursuit of these corporate capitalists becomes an unexpected triumph.   

Poitras turns Goldin’s photos, including her now immortal slideshow, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, into actual cinema, preserving them in this medium they were already so close to. Goldin showed her photos—of her artist friends, drag queens, junkies, bohemians of all kinds—in grimy nightclubs at the height of New York’s downtown scene, the early 1980s, accompanying them with music she selected. One song she used, as we hear in All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, was Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s “I Put a Spell on You,” which is where maybe Jim Jarmusch got the idea to use it in Stranger Than Paradise(1984).

Goldin’s childhood in New England was hellish and she fled it as soon as possible, in an internal “running away from America” that led her to the drag demimonde of Cambridge and Boston, to Provincetown, where she met Cookie Mueller, Divine, and John Waters, and then to the Bowery and the Lower East Side, where she lived and worked on the margins in bars and strip joints. Drugs, sex, and an abusive boyfriend inflamed her art but threatened her life. Her work annoyed and confused the burgeoning world of collectible photography. Making her own life her subject was seen as an “outlier act,” and she was told “this isn’t photography,” though what else it could have been was only implied.

Her abusive ex and her father both tried to stop The Balladfrom being published in book form. Poitras follows Goldin’s life through the AIDS plague that decimated her friends as the Moral Majority began its crackdown on arts funding in America. Goldin narrates all of it in a quiet, considered, uninflected voice, a writerly style stitching together distressing tableaus as they are turned into art.

 

GLASS ONION

Rian Johnson’s Knives Out(2019) was a delightful surprise, and now Netflix has thrown tons of money at a semi-sequel, and too much money has ruined the concept. Glass Onionis a locked-door mystery set in an island mansion—basically movie stars in a room together—and somehow it is all ugly CGI. Everything from a giant explosion to hot sauce running into Janelle Monáe’s nose has a fake, effortful look. The all-star cast is upstaged by the many cameos in it. When Ethan Hawke comes on to do just one thing, he does it so handily that he upstages the stars assembled on a dock waiting for a superyacht to take them into the actual movie, which never quite seems to start.

Johnson’s new takedown of the rich is paper-thin because he can’t seem to concentrate on the actors and busies himself with stuff that doesn’t matter, topical jokes and inserts of wacky products. This is not to say that Daniel Craig, Monáe, and Edward Norton are bad in it, or that the film isn’t clever. They aren’t and it is. But it had no aftereffect. It was as disposable as the fake Mona Lisain the movie that was supposed to be the real thing.

 

TOP GUN: MAVERICK

The film is pure ideology, pure militarism, generic, and like the first Top Gunin 1986, undemanding. The unseen enemy makes Tom Cruise and his Junior Tom Cruises look like they are fighting Daft Punk. This combination of bland and easy-to-follow plus pretty young people and a legit movie star made so much of the horror of recent years fade away when it was released to beleaguered cineplexes last summer. The training film aspects ofTop Gun: Maverickevaporate into the air of the movie’s low altitudes. Val Kilmer is an awkward, living AI turning Ronald Reagan into Joe Biden before our eyes. I tried to turn away from that quasi-deepfake, but I couldn’t.

 

TRIANGLE OF SADNESS

The annoyance and rancor with which Triangle of Sadnesshas been greeted by certain cinephiles who consider themselves evolved has mystified me. It’s worse than it was with Titane. I understand why the fake humanists and the rich socialists of the middlebrow press are against it; I understand why it bugs the Oscarologists who forced themselves to watch it. What I don’t understand is the struggling writers who I have read on Twitter posting sarcastic non-reviews like “Newsflash: rich people are dumb and do dumb shit. Terrible, horrid movie.” Then, when Ruben Östlund shows up in their feed after an interview, they wonder what he’s so happy about and announce they are sick of seeing his stupid face, as if he is as inescapable as Harry Styles, which he is decidedly not.

I have a theory. Östlund’s in a good mood because he lives in a country that isn’t a total immiserated mess like the U.S. or the UK, gets to make movies with great actors about whatever he wants to make them about instead of adapting idiotic IP crap, and keeps winning awards. And I’m confident someone will tell me if I’m wrong.   

In 2021, people loved—unduly, in my opinion—a mediocre Scandinavian movie called The Worst Person in the World by a mediocre Scandinavian director who, in his film, did not show one original thing that anybody had not thought to themselves a thousand times before. This year a good Scandinavian director shows many things I have observed in real life but never once seen depicted on screen and he gets castigated for it. It’s not like the difference in reception between these two films is, let’s say, pronounced. That doesn’t matter in the utopian vision of Östlund’s critics.

Another movie that a lot of smart people loved was Top Gun: Maverick. They reveled in it, they cheered, they buttonholed me to tell me how great it was. In Triangle of Sadness, a different well-established American movie star, Woody Harrelson, is the exact opposite of Tom Cruise in his movie: a drunken communist superyacht captain not in control of anything. He goes down with his $250 million dollar luxury yacht as his wealthy passengers are puking their guts out, shouting Chomsky at them through an intercom: “How people perceive themselves is nothing that interests me. There are very few who look in the mirror and say, ‘The person I see is a savage monster.’ Instead, they make up some construction that justifies what they do.” I wonder about people who disliked that.  

 

ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT

What has happened to the German cinema? As an anti-war war movie, this tedious, inert remake has no dramatic force, with an air of distinct unreality best explained by the piles of corpses that litter the frames like so many garbage pixels. At least in Bardo, Iñárittu had the decency to show his pile of bodies coming back to life. Victims of colonialist murder, they were also actors, human beings, the current people of his country. Director Edward Berger’s other big move is to paint his soldiers’ faces with mud in various colors, for an arty effect of decay more appropriate to an Italian zombie movie.

Albrecht Schuch was quite good in this, as an illiterate soldier, and he was also excellent in another terrible German movie I saw last year, Fabian, in which he played a failing intellectual. He was the only memorable actor in either film. Fabianwas the exact opposite of All Quiet on the Western Frontyet was somehow also unwatchable. It was based on a novel from the Weimar era. The trenches and fields of World War I, the cafés and brothels of Berlin, an actor like Schuch, these German directors can’t do anything with them. I’ve got to go watch a Maren Ade movie so I can get these turkeys out of my mind.

 

BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER

Letitia Wright, as T’Challa’s younger sister, the government scientist Shuri, is now the Black Panther, as Chadwick Boseman’s death is retrofitted to this saga. She has to lead her people to victory in a fight with an undersea race led by Namor, formerly the Sub-Mariner of Atlantis, now a Mayan god played by Tenoch Huerta Mejía with a convincing, wounded rage. He seems dangerous, while Wright seems like she’d balk at holding the elevator for someone. At one point she coyly tells Namor, “I’d love to see your nation.”  

Wakanda Forever is very long and needed an intermission. You know it’s a Marvel movie because it’s steeped in boredom, with every scene threatening to not end. Even when the end credits start, there are fifteen minutes left. Part of it takes place in Boston and Cambridge, on the Mass. Ave. Bridge, which was not damaged enough for my liking. Ryan Coogler brought something new to the first Black Panther movie, though now its importance has faded because these movies are never memorable. They exist to remind directors that they are wasting their lives. Remember when Sofia Coppola so wisely walked away from a Disney movie she had started? No one else does, either, but it happened. Other directors would be wise to look into it.

 

THE BANSHEES OF INISHERIN

Shorter than Wakanda Foreverby a whopping forty-seven minutes, The Banshees of Inisherinis also too long. Martin McDonagh, a writer always trying to be more of a director, insists on starting with drone shots because Ireland is beautiful, but drone shots are padding. When I see them at the beginning of a movie, I always expect there will be more. Introducing them early slows down later scenes because of that expectation. Drone shots also seem off to me in films that take place in the past, like this one, which is set in 1923.

They also detract from McDonagh’s greatest strength, which is with actors. The ensemble here—Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Kerry Condon, and Barry Keoghan—are exceptional in the old Abbey Theatre way. This dark film plays on the enduring appeal of Irish music while teaching a hard lesson, which is that there is a difference between empathy and niceness. Colin Farrell is especially good as a stupid and boring but pleasant man driven to violence by his best friend’s sudden coldness, which is also a form of violence.

McDonagh literalizes it through Gleeson’s self-mutilation, the film’s hook, the disturbing, awful thing that keeps it from being mere quality product. While Farrell works himself up like a Hibernian Jack Lemmon, and Gleeson gets steelier and gorier, it is Barry Keoghan who adds the most to the movie’s truly unsettling vibe. Keoghan, one of the strangest actors working today, jerks his performances wildly between “this guy is the greatest actor I have ever seen” and “this kid is getting a little too weird.” Playing a tragic figure in a film of tragic figures, Keoghan works against the padding, same as he did in The Green Knightand The Killing of a Sacred Deer. How long he can keep doing that before either insanity or stardom calls?

 

TÁR

Movies set in the world of classical music often deal in difficult emotional states, as Tárdoes, but they usually present their turmoil against extreme stylization and great visual beauty, like in The Red Shoes(1948) and other Powell and Pressburger films, or in Ken Russell’s crazed filmography. It is a testament to our time that this gray, controlled film is mostly meetings in offices and restaurants against a background of drab bureaucracy.

When the film opens up in its last act, set in some generic Asian country where Marlon Brando once shot a film, this other world is a revelation. Of course it makes Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) sick. She’s been in Germany too long, conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, threatening children, cheating on her wife, ignoring her colleagues unless she’s interested in them romantically,  etc.

Todd Field’s canniness in turning Tárinto a great success as a cultural moment and artifact was in making his main character what Nancy Mitford once called a “you-know-what-bian.” A number of prominent men in classical music have been outed for sexual harassment, so a gender switch here could be, and has been, seen as inherently misguided and sexist. Yet it is her queerness that makes Lydia Tár the Woman You Love to Hate and dress up as. The world has been waiting for such a figure, a Daniel Plainview that 2022, with all its gender questioning, could call its own. A straight white man wasn’t going to work. Voilà, Lydia Tár.

Field frontloads his film with material that made me suspicious of what was to come. All the credits right off, the onstage interview with LT by Adam Gopnik playing himself at the New YorkerFestival. Right away the film said: abandon hope. Plus the title, an anagram of “art” and “rat.” By the time we see Lydia working out an anagram of someone else’s name, the suspicion that she is a fraud begins to grow, and then it becomes clear we are witnessing the enjoyable spectacle of a New Yorker Festival participant’s downfall, the comeuppance of the kind of person who calls other people robots and tells them what to order at lunch.

“You’re all going to hell,” she sings, drunkenly, with her low-class accordion, as we witness her breakdown and her return to her roots in Staten Island. She’s a crocodile, though, and as she learns in Asia, “they survive.” Prepare for Tár II, or Lydia Tár XXL.   

 

AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER

The Na’vi aren’t blue, they’re turquoise, because they’re fake tribal shit being sold to tourists in the post-cinematic equivalent of Taos, New Mexico. Cameron throws you off because turquoise is from the desert, and this is The Way of Water.You can put coffee in a blue Kokopelli coffee mug and stare at the Flying Toasters screen saver on your Macintosh Classic and get the same rush. It is bad juju to see these movies. I’ve got enough problems without exposing myself to the second one after I saw the first one fourteen years ago. By the time Cameron finishes these things he’ll be a form of consciousness uploaded to the Cloud, married to a hologram of Mia Goth.

 

WOMEN TALKING

I recently moved to what can only be described as a remote area, and one aspect of living in the tundra is that I now live near several Mennonite and Amish families. I don’t know any of them. I only see them on the road when I’m driving by their houses and barns, or when one of their black horse-drawn buggies appears out of nowhere on the state highway at twilight, like an apparition from a silent movie, The Phantom Carriageor Nosferatu.

There are three movie theaters nearby, but none of them was showing Women Talking, so I asked the film’s publicists for a screener. After three weeks of frustrating haggling by email, they finally provided a link that was only viewable on my iPhone, which is the same as having no link at all. All of a sudden I was in the same position as my Mennonite and Amish neighbors. There was a movie out about them, one that indicted half of them as utter, depraved monsters, the worst possible human beings, and none of us was allowed to see it. They because they aren’t supposed to see movies, me because God forbid MGM/UA should send me a screener that I might pirate.

Not to be defeated by today’s technology, I drove to a movie theater across the Canadian border and saw Women Talkingin a giant cineplex in a mall where many of the shops and restaurants are out of business. The film tells the story of a Mennonite colony in which for years the men have been systematically drugging the women and girls with a cattle anesthetic then raping them in their sleep. It’s a true story that happened in a Mennonite colony in Bolivia and was the basis for a novel, though the film takes place in North America. A group of the women gets together to decide whether they should stay and forgive their husbands, brothers, and sons, or if they should leave the colony, abandoning the only life they have ever known to go live in a world they consider ungodly.

The film is structured like 12 Angry Men, dramatizing competing opinions about what to do, though guilt here has already been firmly established. Eventually they leave, as they should—and the movie would not have been made if they’d stayed—and we see them in an O Pioneers! wagon train shot that was filmed by drone, which, as I’ve mentioned, doesn’t work as drama and ruins films. I was surprised Sarah Polley included it.

Women Talking, which stars Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Frances McDormand as a character called “Scarface Janz,” and one adult man, Ben Whishaw, as their scribe, was obviously not made by Mennonite or Amish people. Since movies were at one time a purely optical and hand-cranked mechanical medium that required no electricity, I suppose the Amish could make a movie using old equipment if they for some reason wanted to, the same way they use a horse-drawn plow instead of a tractor with an engine—they plow snow that way, too, I’ve learned. If a group of Amish women did make a movie, would it be a joyless and punishing, desaturated conversation piece about mass rape in which all men except Ben Whishaw are predatory abusive criminals of the very worst kind?

This movie is the opposite of All the Beauty and the Bloodshedin the way it approaches both male-female relations and social justice issues. The work of Goldin and Poitras has real-world value and has effected actual change in society. I can’t figure out what this movie was trying to do. But it’s good those women left. In the real story, in Bolivia, the men were arrested, tried, and sentenced to prison. In the movie, the women just leave the men behind, telling poor Ben Whishaw to teach them to be better. I cannot imagine how that would go well.

 

LE PUPILLE

Alice Rohrwacher’s Le Pupilleis a film just under forty minutes long that also takes place in all-female environment, in this case a Catholic boarding school for young girls run by nuns. The school has become impoverished due to wartime privations—it’s World War II in Italy. It’s also Christmastime, when the people of the village visit the school to see the girls enact the Nativity and leave them small gifts of food, which they hope will curry favor with God. One rich woman, desperate for her cheating husband to come back, gives the nuns a zuppa inglese, a huge, gorgeous layer cake it takes dozens of eggs to make, and which is filled with chocolate and vanilla cream and soaked in something that turns it bright red.

The decadence of this confection angers the nuns while its mere existence obsesses the girls. The second half of the film shows what happens to the cake when the nuns deny it to their charges by telling them they are sinners who don’t deserve it. Instead they will give it as a gift to a priest they are trying to curry favor with themselves. The unfairness of this plan is palpable, the outrage immediate and painful—this simple story about a dessert has more to say about what’s wrong with humanity than Women Talking.

Rohrwacher’s delightful movie is a Christmas miracle for several reasons. It was made under an abandoned plan by Disney to make live-action shorts. They made just this one. Shot on film, it uses every trick of editing and point-of-view to such great effect that it’s one of those movies that proves again computer effects aren’t needed. It is concise and wastes nothing. Furthermore, it is a semi-musical, with the girls singing directly to the camera, and it was nominated for a short-film Oscar. People, there is hope.

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